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May 16

Arab News Newspaper: Philippine Govt Annoyed by Public Opinion

Philippine Govt Annoyed by Public Opinion
Manuel L. Quezon III

Malacanang Palace took pains to protest media counts and exit polls, which it said was “trending,” that is, putting forward a false or misleading impression. This came in the wake of a Pulse Asia exit poll revealing an opposition landslide in the Senate race (9 opposition, 1 administration, 2 independents) in the National Capitol Region (NCR). Tonypet Albano, spokesman for the administration Senate slate, complained that the quick counts were biased for the NCR: But then Danny Magbual from Namfrel said the media quick count figures weren’t very different from their figures, and both the media quick count organizers and Magbual pointed out most of their figures were actually coming from outside NCR.

If the quick counts and the exit polls struck a raw nerve in Malacanang, perhaps the palace didn’t take into account that it’s attempt to question the results would irritate non-partisans like Namfrel and the teachers and students manning the quick count efforts. Or that pitting Metro Manila and surrounding areas versus the Visayas and Mindanao (where even before the elections, palace spokesmen had predicted would counter-act any NCR votes) might not work so well, if the NCR’s votes ended up reflected even in administration bailiwicks.

After all, local media throughout the country as well as provincial chapters of Namfrel are conducting their own quick counts. To give just some examples: In Cebu itself, the media quick count (as of 1 a.m. on May 15) had 5 opposition candidates leading, with 6 administration candidates and 1 independent, which is far from massive results even in the heart of Arroyo’s “heartland”. Shortly before submitting this column, I texted a media colleague in Cebu City to see how things had changed; his response: “of those I’ve heard in radio or submitted from the field I’m getting the impression many opposition candidates are doing well, particularly Chiz.”

In Negros Occidental, also considered an administration bailiwick, one media quick count had 7 opposition candidates in the lead; another had 8 in the lead; even the provincial government quick count had 5 opposition candidates in the top 12. Namfrel Zamboanga, updating in real time almost, has the opposition Senate slate doing very well, too. Namfrel quick counts in Kidapawan City and Cotobato province as whole, have the opposition leading, too. Initial reports from the disappointingly small Overseas Filipino vote also had the opposition in the lead.

Last Friday, Newsbreak magazine published a report that indicated where electoral fraud might resemble the events of 2004, and where the tactics of cheating might change. The use of pre-accomplished election returns (ERs) that were switched for the genuine ones before the municipal canvassing began, would not be done so much this year. Neither would the use of extra certificates of canvass that tampered with actual provincial tallies.

The article pointed out which 2004 election tricks would be used again this year: Wide-scale operations only in “friendly” cities and provinces; an unusually high voter turnout in these areas; and the buying out, if necessary, of the opposition’s poll watchers. And this year’s new trick: Precinct-based cheating will involve teachers, who, as election inspectors, will be tasked to misread the candidates’ names in the ballots.

The article also pointed out that higher-than-usual voter turnout in the provinces might provide the cover for padding votes. Initially it seemed the Comelec would proclaim a higher-than-usual turnout, but since there was a respectable number of foreign observers, the Comelec’s taken to stating voter turnout wasn’t spectacular. Although a low voter turnout, especially in opposition areas, could serve administration purposes, too. In the days leading to the election, Inquirer.net published an online electoral map, comparing official Comelec data on registered voters in every province for 2004 and 2007. In the NCR, known opposition bailiwicks had the number of registered voters reduced (by 12 percent in Quezon City; 6 percent in Manila) while some provincial areas had the number of registered voters increase by up to 20 percent on a provincial basis.

The whole thing is a race, of course. The public cast its vote on May 14, and by May 15 most of these votes had been counted. But the results have not been released, because the precinct-level results are re-counted on the municipal, then provincial, then national basis. Which stretches out the period of uncertainty for at least a week. This is when the results of elections can be tinkered with. Luzon is the hardest to cheat; followed by the Visayas; while Mindanao offers many opportunities for last-ditch adjustments. Several towns, for example, had a “failure of elections,” freeing up as much as 60,000 votes to be recast and recomputed after the national results are known. This is a crucial number of votes, considering the difference between the No. 12 and No. 13 placers in the 2004 senate race was decided by a margin of roughly 4,000 votes.

The snapshot in time that matters, I think, is that taken in every precinct, practically, throughout the country, as of early yesterday morning. At that point, slow, cumbersome, inefficient as the Philippine democratic system may be, democracy still worked. The problem is that no means has been found to then quickly, and accurately, compile the results from those 300,000 or so precincts, and get national results.

It’s when the teachers, who stayed up 24 hours to conduct the elections, the voters, 70 percent of whom nationally bothered to vote, and the conscientious officials and soldiers and policemen who did their duty on election day, deposit their locked ballot boxes and reports, that our democracy begins to unravel. Not before. And there lies the clue as to the reforms that can be done. Computerization comes not in the casting of the ballot, or its initial counting, but rather, in counting the precinct results. But that’s something to discuss soon, but not now.

Right now, the elections aren’t over and the media pressure and scrutiny, combined with efforts by Namfrel to redeem its reputation, tarnished in 2004 in the same manner survey firms suffered a black eye, just might save the credibility of this election.

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